One way or another, it dominated the lives of most of the street people. I had had an uneventful and conventional Catholic religious upbringing, which didn’t take. I stopped going to church when I was about seventeen. Although I didn’t go to Catholic schools when I was a child, I did go to Saturday morning catechism. I had none of the unpleasant or traumatic experiences described by some of my generation (I was born in 1950) who did go to Catholic schools. Religion was not important in my adult life.

However, religion is important to the mission system. It is the source of contradictions built into every aspect of that system. If you think of religion as a great moral force, as many people do, you are immediately confronted with those contradictions. Within the mission system religion could work in a very unkind way. You could see religion’s power and the way some people used it to exert control over others. One group of people — mission workers and church volunteers — supplied or denied food and shelter to another group — street people and alcoholics — who needed it. The street people and alcoholics got what they needed only if they did things the mission people required of them, things they often didn’t want to do.

As I learned how the missions worked, I began to look at religion as a method of control. Later, I looked for how religion was used as a method of control in more subtle instances, in which the power ratio wasn’t so lopsided. Social power isn’t hidden in the missions as it is in middle-class churches; the power of the church isn’t as diluted or disguised as it is in other areas of life. In the mission world, it’s not spiritual food the church provides, it’s the real thing, and that makes the exertion of control more obvious. The mission workers and volunteers sometimes refer to the spiritual, metaphorically, as food for the soul. But it’s not a lack of spiritual food that is bothering the people who come to the missions; it’s the physical sustenance of life that’s on their minds. The spiritual isn’t as potent a controlling device as real food, and it’s the real food the missions use that brings in the street people and persuades them to